The University of Notre Dame, with its requirements for students to study philosophy and theology, is the exception rather than the rule for top universities. And yet, it is not uncommon to hear philosophy and theology derided as subjects unworthy of study: the argument is often that they are not useful and are therefore a waste of time. The irony of such an argument is that it involves a certain philosophical stance on what is worth pursuing in life. However, I would say that it is a mistake to think that one can find all the answers by himself. Indeed, at least a minimal understanding of philosophy is necessary to live a good life because one cannot know what a good life is without understanding philosophy.
Philosophy means “the love of wisdom”, but as an activity it is the investigation of the nature of the universe and of human existence. I feel like most people’s perception of philosophy is that it involves asking complicated questions on obscure matters. I think this point of view is a symptom of how people encounter philosophy. Often, they will hear about specific thought experiments or the theory of a single philosopher, but will not have the basic knowledge necessary to understand the context of what they are hearing. Philosophy has never been an activity carried on in isolation; on the contrary, it has always been a dialogue with the past. Philosophers respond to the problems of their time and to the ideas of those who came before them. Because the average person does not have a great knowledge of the history of philosophy, why would they? – being initiated into philosophical concepts and theories in isolation can make them seem too complicated. Of course, learning the history of philosophy is not an easy task in itself, but I think only general knowledge is needed to contextualize different thinkers.
Another reason why people today might not be very interested in philosophy comes from the 19th century French aristocrat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. During Tocqueville’s tour of the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, he noted that “in no country in the civilized world is philosophy less attention than in the United States”. Tocqueville explains that the relative social equality the United States enjoys weakens ties between generations and within social class, so that individuals look to their own reason rather than to any philosophical tradition for meaning. in the world. While I’m not sure if his reasons for thinking so are good or bad, I think Tocqueville is essentially correct that people today rely mostly on their own reason to answer complicated questions about life. . Now I think it’s a good thing to try to make up your own mind rather than just rely on some authority, but I think we could all benefit from hearing what some of the greatest thinkers of history have had to say about the important matters of life.
The most important questions, such as “Does my life have a purpose? “,” How should I treat others? And “Is there a god?” Are questions to which we cannot avoid having an answer. Not answering remains an answer. But having a good answer to these kinds of questions is very important, because it affects the way you have to live your life. If life has an objective purpose, then knowing and understanding that purpose has important implications for how we should live our lives. To simply approach these questions in the solitude of our own minds would be doing us a great disservice, when others have been pondering these questions for thousands of years. Especially when some people have spent their entire lives pondering these questions, it would be foolish not to at least hear what they have to say. Because it helps answer these important questions, the study of philosophy is exactly what many seem to think it isn’t: useful. Granted, one cannot get a job just because one has a solid understanding of Aristotle’s ethical evidence, but one can live a better life by understanding Aristotle (as hard as it is to read). Just because philosophy can’t make you money doesn’t mean it’s worthless. You could spend your entire life making huge sums of money, but it wouldn’t make sense if you woke up one day and realized that you wanted something else out of life. Philosophy, while not always having clear answers, gives us the tools and arguments to evaluate our own lives in order to hopefully avoid such awareness.
In the study of philosophy, I believe the best place to start is near the beginning. The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that “the surest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. Whitehead is able to make this characterization because Plato, writing in ancient Greece, was one of the first people to write on just about any general philosophical subject one can think of. He wrote about soul, justice, love, creation of the universe and more. But most importantly, in my opinion, he did not write dense treatises, but wrote dialogues between his former teacher, Socrates, and a variety of other Greek men. These dialogues did not always yield satisfactory answers, but they did raise important questions. I know not everyone has the time to undertake a study of the history of philosophy, but I think everyone could benefit from reading even a tiny bit of Plato.
David Henry is a second year student specializing in the Liberal Studies program with an additional major in ACMS and a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be contacted at [email protected] by email.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.